Monday, May 2, 2005

Saw "The Downfall" last night

And boy was it memorable. The war scenes were hardly as gruesome as the Gibson- or Spielberg-style bloodbath I was anticipating. But they didn't need to be. Violence, along with a silver streak of mercy (okay, also along with Tom Hanks), was the centerpiece of _Saving Private Ryan_. By contrast, the centerpiece of _The Downfall_ (_Der Untergang_) was sheer human perversity and the surrealistic death rattle of a fascist cult of personality. I wish I could say I didn*t find it boring at times, but, well, I did. (What can be done -- I*m an American?) Any boredom I felt, however, had nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of the film. Quite the opposite. First of all, the acting was superb. I could almost smell Hitler as I watched Bruno Ganz portray him.

Second, my boredom was more a result of the fatigued melancholy the movie emits. Hitler's end was so banal and so vulgar that I actually lost, not so much cinematic or intellectual interest, as empathic or emotional stamina. I knew where Hitler was headed and I could barely stand to watch his lurch into the grave by way of multiple grave sins. The feel of the bunker was remarkably oppressive, and sometimes felt as stifling as a real wartime bunker. Outside Berlin was being bombed. Inside, Hitler was unraveling into a mound of hysterical Führer-dust. The bunker's obsession with suicide -- as well as its ultimate gruesome fulfillment -- gnawed at me like a hungry wolf. Hence, my boredom was more moral exhaustion and cinematic acedia than real disapproval of the movie.

_Der Untergang_ was the first film since 1955 to feature Hitler as a lead character. It was, perhaps needless to say, a controversial film in Europe. Critics claim it not only humanizes Hitler too charitably, but also that it ameliorates the badness that is and was National Socialism (e.g., by calling it a "downfall" instead of a "liberation" or a "victory"; by seeming to highlight and mourn the German protagonists as the film closed out). More importantly, the film saves any mention of the Jewish Holocaust for a few comments at the very end.

With all due respect, I find these critiques a bit desperate. First of all, the director, Oliver Hirschbiegel, does not lay all the blame on the Führer. Rather, he explicitly has the gargoyle Joseph Goebbels (played by the way-too-creepy-for-my-taste Ulrich Matthes) say the German people did not blindly follow the Führer this far, and, as such, their demise in the attack on Berlin is the fitting fruit of their devotion to the Führer. "Ich habe ja niemand gezwungen, mein Mitarbeiter zu sein, so, wie wir auch das deutsche Volk nicht gezwungen haben. Es hat uns ja selbst beauftragt. ... Jetzt wird Ihnen das Hälschen durchgeschnitten." ["I did not force anyone to work with me, just as we did not force the German people. They authorized us all on their own. ... Now their throats are being slashed.”]

As far as idolizing or softening Hitler goes, I agree with the following:

Befürworter des Projekts loben die Authentizität des Films, der viele historisch verbürgte Zitate enthält. Man könne den Aufstieg der Nationalsozialisten und die Faszination, die von Hitler ausging, erst dann richtig verstehen, wenn man sich mit dem Menschen Hitler beschäftige und ihn nicht als mythologisches Wesen (Teufel) oder Unmensch betrachte. Die Untaten Hitlers verlören ihre Schrecken nicht, würden im Gegenteil erst gerade dadurch als Menschenwerk erschreckend. Um zu verhindern, dass der Diktator als Identifikationsfigur erscheine, wurde die Erzählperspektive der Sekretärin Traudl Junge gewählt.

[Supporters of the project praise the authenticity of the film, insofar as it contains a number of real historical quotes. By occupying itself with the human person of Hitler, as opposed to treating him as a mythological being (devil) or a non-human, the viewer can for once properly understand the rise of National Socialism und the fascination that Hitler generated. Hitler's crimes would not lose their horrific nature but would, by contrast, be terrifying precisely in virtue of being the work of a human. In order to curb any impression that the dictator was a figure meant for identification, the film used perspective of his secretary, Traudl Junge.]

This film does not glorify Hitler. (Unless showing the tears of cracking and megalomaniacal dictator equate to fawning adoration.) If anything, the film trivializes Hitler as but one member in a long line of blustery rabble rousers that ultimately collapses into neurotic cowardice and ignominy. Hitler may have been a "historical figure," but that doesn't remove the fact that he drove himself and his own country to a pathetic and literally pitiful demise. The piteousness of "the downfall" as a moral reality is crucial for appreciating _Der Untergang_ as a film. If Hirschbiegel did "humanize" Hitler, he was only doing so for the best reasons. First, like it or not, Hitler was a human. Second, if Hitler is beyond or beneath pitying *as a human*, then he is also beyond or above reproaching as a grave sinner. Pity is as human a response as indignation. To demoralize Hitler as inhuman and unpitiable is to amoralize him -- and thus exonerate him. Hirschbiegel's controversial "allzu menschliche"[1] portrayal of Hitler is, in fact, a direct hit against revisionist moral relativism which might want to absolve Hitler on account of "historical situatedness."[2] This connection between humanness, pity and immorality is a key theme in the film, and I would be delighted to discover Hirschbiegel intentionally portrayed so closely together.

_Der Untergang_ is worth seeing if for nothing other than having seen an "important film." I intend to see it again this Tuesday. (Free German lesson!)

[1] This is an allusion to one of Nietzsche's tracts works, titled "Menschlich, allzu menschlich" ("Human, all too human"). Hitler's devotion to Nietzschean, and, lest we forget, Darwinian stoicism is elegantly depicted in this film. Never forget.

[2] The same goes for any defenses of the moral dangers of Darwinism. Merely insisting, as a reviewer does in the link just above (in note [1]), that Darwin never meant to say the "fittest" were in some way "better" ignores the fundamental problem. We can and should applaud Darwin insofar as he did not (well, not ultimately) want to use his findings in defense of racial elitism. Alas, once the applause dies down, the problem remains that by dissolving all essential differences in a tempestuous acid bath of random gradual differentiation, Darwin leaves us no ground for saying the extermination of one subset of the collective bio-system (let’s call them "Jews" for taxonomical ease, mh?) is immoral or anything more than reflexively unappetizing. One amoral action against an amoral cluster of beings by another amoral section of the amoral genetic matrix is not a crime -- it's evolution.

Thus, while trying to understand Hitler's concrete historical situation, and his own human motives, is good, it doesn't allow us to absolve him for his heinous crimes, particularly since the standards of his own situated moral climate would condemn him probably even more strongly than today. In the same way, "defending" Darwinism against the prima facie valid charge that it leads to biological savagery on the grounds that Darwinism actually undercuts the very basis for savage elitism (i.e., absolute levels, metaphysical essences, a chain of being, etc.), only brings us back to the more fundamental charge that Darwinism undercuts the very basis for moral strictures against any savagery.

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